What You Should Know About Earthquakes

An earthquake is a shifting of the earth's plates, which results in a sudden mild-to-strong shaking of the ground. The shaking may be sideways, up and down, or wave-like, and can occur over very large regions. Earthquakes can last from a few seconds to several minutes and usually start with a rumbling noise that can be low in volume or as loud as a freight train. Earthquakes occur suddenly and unpredictably.

Earthquakes are measured on two scales. The Richter scale measures the amount of energy released by an earthquake; the Modified Mercalli scale measures the amount of damage and destruction of the earthquake. Click here to see a comparison of the Richter and Mercalli Scales.

Earthquakes may result in extensive damage to communities, including collapsing schools, homes, bridges, dams, highways, and even tall buildings. Breaks in gas and power lines can cause fires and breaks in water pipes can make it difficult for fires to be put out. Sewage pipe breaks can result in disease in the following days and weeks. Approximately seventy earthquakes occur around the world every year, but only a few cause extreme damage, destruction, injury, and death.

Most earthquake injuries result from falls or being hit by collapsing walls, flying glass, or shifting objects. People can be injured or killed by being trapped in a collapsed building or severely burned in a fire. Injuries to the head, neck, or chest are usually the most severe.

Earthquake aftershocks are common. Over time, aftershocks generally become less strong and less frequent, but they can cause more damage and injury than the original jolt, and can occur for months following the original earthquake.

Impact on Children and Families

Because earthquakes are unexpected and can be very destructive, being in one can be terrifying. People fear they will be injured or killed. They may be separated from family, with hours passing before knowing if their loved ones are safe. They may see collapsed buildings or other destruction and experience the horror of seeing severely injured people or even dead bodies. As they assess the damage, people may find that a relative or close friend has been killed or that their home has been destroyed. Earthquakes are particularly difficult physically and emotionally for people who are disabled or have special needs.

In the aftermath, people may continue to encounter sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and inner feelings that remind them-even years after-of the earthquake. These traumatic reminders can bring on distressing mental images, thoughts, and emotional/physical reactions. Common reminders include aftershocks, cracks in the wall, rumbling noises, destroyed buildings, smells of fire and smoke, the place where they experienced the earthquake, seeing people with disabilities, funerals, anniversaries of the date, and television or radio news about earthquakes.

An earthquake may serve as a reminder of prior trauma and loss, making the current reactions even worse. Post-earthquake problems with living conditions, food, water, electricity, transportation, school, work, and daily routines may make living very difficult for weeks or even months. Efforts to contend with these adversities may significantly reduce a person's coping and emotional resources, and in turn interfere with their ability to recover

Post-earthquake studies of children and adults from around the world have found that:

  • Those with the most severe earthquake-related experiences and losses have the most severe and persistent posttraumatic stress and grief reactions.
  • There can be widespread separation-anxiety in children and adolescents following the event.
  • Depression, associated with posttraumatic stress reactions and disruption to living circumstances, often occurs after major earthquakes.
  • Ongoing problems may include: marital discord; substance abuse; delinquent, aggressive or withdrawn behavior; and complaints about physical health, including headaches, stomachaches, rapid heartbeat, tightness in the chest, and appetite and digestive problems.
  • Children and adolescents lose trust in the safety and security of the world, and in the ability of adults to protect them.
  • Specialized trauma- or grief-focused mental health services can help children and adolescents recover from the psychological consequences of an earthquake.



Readiness: Before an Earthquake

Since earthquakes occur rarely, there is a tendency to minimize risk. Families living in an earthquake-prone area can educate themselves about the degree of risk, can rent or buy homes constructed to earthquake specifications, and can have a supply of water, food, and other emergency provisions. Practice sessions with children in which families take shelter in a designated place of safety in the home are essential.

Preparedness before an earthquake is an indispensable way to help families recover after an earthquake. For parents, preparedness means (1) talking to our children about a possible disaster, and (2) taking the following steps to plan for such an occurrence:


It is important that families make a Family Preparedness Plan so that all family members will know what to do in case of an earthquake or other disaster. Use the following checklist to help.


  • Assemble an Emergency Supply Kit.
  • Make and carry a Family Preparedness Wallet Card.
  • Know safe and dangerous spots inside and outside the home.
  • Identify 2 escape routes to the outside.
  • Pick a place to reunite following an earthquake.
  • Conduct practice drills.
  • Learn how to turn off all utilities.
  • Secure furniture, water heater, and things that can slide or fall.
  • Make 2 copies of essential documents (include photos of valuables). Keep one set in your Emergency Supply Kit and keep the other in another city or state.
  • Share your plan with your relatives and neighbors.


At School

Families should learn about and assess their child's school emergency plan. Make sure the plan includes:
  • Staff training and regular practice drills
  • Short and long-term care and shelter
  • A plan for identifying potential hazards and making needed changes
  • Individual checklists summarizing what school personnel and students should do before, during, and after an earthquake, including assignments to specific staff to do the following after an earthquake:
    • Shut off gas, electric, and water valves
    • Check on toxic chemicals in science labs
    • Secure maintenance facilities and materials
    • Staff training and regular practice drills
    • A plan for identifying potential hazzards and making needed changes

Parents should not forget to assess their preschool and after-school programs.



Response: During an Earthquake

In any setting the basic first steps of earthquake response are:
  • Duck down.
  • Cover your head and neck with your arms.
  • Hold until the shaking stops.


At Home

When the shaking stops:

  • Take a few deep breaths to calm yourself.
  • Find a safe place to take stock of injury or damage.
  • Turn on a radio for immediate information.
  • Shut off gas, water, and electricity.
  • Do not light candles.
  • Do not try to relight a gas burner until it is safe.
  • Gather your family members (the family is an important resource for recovery).
  • Calmly and simply explain to children what has happened.
  • Allow children to express their thoughts and emotions and ask questions, assuring them it is okay to be upset. Be patient and do not force them to talk about what has just happened.
  • Stay together as a family as much as possible. If your children are fearful, reassure them that you love them and will take care of them. Do not make fun of immature or acting out behavior or shame the child with words like "babyish."
  • Parents: be sure to take care of yourselves, because you are so important to your children.
  • Gradually return to a normal routine, with regular meal and bedtimes and going back to school and to work.
  • Have your house inspected to ensure the stability of the foundation, chimney, and roof.


At School

  • Turn off computers and other vulnerable electric equipment.
  • Execute a smooth, non-chaotic school evacuation if needed.
  • Get medical attention to injured children and staff as soon as possible.
  • Take steps to inform and reassure students.
  • Make sure staff follow through on emergency earthquake assignments.
  • Conduct inspections with structural engineers as soon as feasible.
  • Make needed repairs after the earthquake.

In the hours and days immediately following an earthquake, teachers should:

  • Identify students who had strong reactions to the earthquake, particularly those who are withdrawn, quiet, overly irritable, aggressive, acting out, or nervous.
  • Support each other, talk together, and help each other care for their own family members.
  • Plan shorter lessons, go at a slower pace, and give less homework than usual. Expect a decline in academic performance and avoid being critical about this.
  • Set aside classroom time to help students cope with post-earthquake adversities and reminders.
  • Encourage parents and students to report if a student or family member is having problems as a result of the earthquake.


Recovery: After an Earthquake

Most families will recover over time, particularly with the support of family, friends, and organizations. The length of recovery will depend, in part, upon how frightening the earthquake was, whether evacuation from home was necessary, and the extent of the damage and loss. Some families will be able to return to their normal routines rather quickly, while others will have to contend with repairing damage to their home and possessions, finding medical care, and facing financial hardship. Some families will have lost a loved one or a pet. Others will need to deal with school closings or changes in school schedules.

Children's functioning and recovery will be influenced by how their parents and caregivers cope during and after the earthquake. Children often turn to adults for information, comfort, and help. Children do best when parents and teachers remain (or at least appear) calm, answer children's questions honestly, and respond as best they can to requests.

Page Contents:

NCTSN Resources

Trinka and Sam: The Day the Earth Shook - A Children's Book (PDF) 
Trinka and Sam the Day the Earth Shook is a story developed to help young children and their families begin to talk about feelings and worries they may have after they have experienced an earthquake. In the story, Trinka and Sam, two small mice, become scared and worried after they experienced an earthquake and witnessed damage to their community. The aftershocks reminded them of the initial earthquake. The story describes some of their reactions and talks about how their parents help them to express their feelings and feel safer. In the back of the booklet, there is a parent guide that suggests ways that parents can use the story with their children.  

     >Cebuano [Si Trinka ug si Sam: Sa Adlaw nga Niuyog ang Yuta] (PDF)  
     >En Español [Trinka y Juan] (PDF)
     >Japanese [トゥリンカとサム じめん 地面がゆれた日] (PDF)
     >Nepalese [Gita and Shyam: The Day the Earth Shook] (PDF)
The Nepalese version of Trinka and Sam, Gita and Shyam, was formatted for printing on A4 paper. The book comes with both a color and black and white version of the cover, which is the second page. If you are distributing the book and are unable to print in color, please disregard the colored cover page and print in black and white.

     >En Español [Después de Pasar por La Experiencia de Un Terremoto] (PDF)

Parent Guidelines for Helping Children after an Earthquake (PDF)
     >Creole [Konsèy pou paran ka ede timoun yo apre yon tranbleman tè ] (PDF)

Teacher Guidelines for Helping Students after an Earthquake (PDF)
     >Creole [Konsèy pou pwofesè ka ede elèv yo apre yon tranbleman tè] (PDF)
     >Creole [Gid pou pwofesè kap vle ede elèv aprè tranbleman de tè] (PDF)

Tips for Parents on Media Coverage of the Earthquake (PDF)

Guidance for Caregivers: Children or Teens who had a Loved One Die in The Earthquake (PDF)

Guidance for School Personnel: Students Who had a Loved One Die in The Earthquake (PDF)

Psychological First Aid 
     >En Español [Primeros Auxilios Psicológicos - Guía de Operaciones Prácticas]

Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide for Community Religious Professionals


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Other Resources

Jo Jo's Place

This website is made for kids who have been in an earthquake. It is scary being in an earthquake. At the moment, things are probably quite different to how they normally are. This website has helpful material to look at and read. It is designed to help children understand what is happening to them and how they can get through this tough time.


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Children's Reactions

Children will react differently to an earthquake and its aftermath depending on their age, developmental level, and prior experiences. Some will withdraw, while others will have angry outbursts. Still others will become agitated or irritable. Parents should be sensitive to each child's coping style. The following are typical reactions children exhibit following an earthquake or other natural disaster:

  • Fear and worry about their safety and the safety of others, including pets
  • Fear of separation from family members
  • Clinging to parents, siblings, or teachers
  • Worry that another earthquake will come
  • Increase in activity level
  • Trouble concentrating or paying attention
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Angry outbursts or tantrums
  • Aggression toward parents, siblings, or friends
  • Increase in physical complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Change in school performance
  • Long-lasting focus on the earthquake, such as talking repeatedly about it or acting out the event in play
  • Increased sensitivity to aftershocks, creaking sounds, things falling or crashing, buildings swaying slightly in the wind, or trembling that occurs when a big truck drives by
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of interest in usual activities, even playing with friends
  • Returning to earlier behaviors, such as baby talk, bedwetting, or tantrums
  • Increase in teens' risky behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, using substances, harming themselves, or engaging in dangerous activities


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What Parents Can Do to Help Their Children

Parents should spend time talking to their children, letting them know that it is okay to ask questions and to share their worries. Although it will be hard finding time, parents can use regular family mealtimes or bedtimes to talk. Issues may come up more than once and parents should remain patient and open to answering questions and clarifying the situation. They should let children know, without overwhelming them with information, what is happening in the family, with their school, and in the community. Parents should answer questions briefly and honestly and ask their children for their opinions and ideas. To help younger children feel safe and calm after talking about the earthquake, parents might read a favorite story or have a relaxing family activity.

To help children's recovery, parents should:

  • Be a role model. Try to remain calm so that you can teach your child how to handle stressful situations.
  • Monitor adult conversations. Be aware of what adults are saying about the earthquake or the damage. Children listen to adults' conversations and may misinterpret what they hear, becoming unnecessarily frightened.
  • Limit media exposure. Protect your child from too many images and descriptions of the earthquake, including those on television, on the Internet, on radio, and in the newspaper.
  • Reassure children that they are safe. You may need to repeat this frequently even after the earthquake passes. Spend extra time with them, playing games outside, reading together indoors, or just cuddling. Be sure to tell them you love them.
  • Replace lost or damaged toys as soon as you are able.
  • Calm worries about their friends' safety. Even though phones may not be working, reassure your children that their friends' parents are taking care of them, just the way you are taking care of your children.
  • Tell children about community recovery. Reassure them that the government is working hard to restore electricity, phones, water, and gas. Tell them that the town or city will be removing debris and helping families find housing.
  • Take care of your children's health. Help them get enough rest, exercise, and healthy food and water. Give them both quiet and physical activities.
  • Review the family preparedness plan. Some children will fear another earthquake, particularly when there are aftershocks, so practicing the plan can help increase their sense of safety.
  • Maintain regular daily life. In the midst of disruption and change, children feel more secure with structure and routine. As much as possible, have regular mealtimes and bedtimes.
  • Maintain expectations. Stick to your family rules about good behavior and respect for others. Continue family chores, but keep in mind that children may need more reminding than usual.
  • Encourage children to help. Children cope better and recover sooner when they help others. Give them small cleanup tasks or other ways to contribute. Afterward, provide activities unrelated to the earthquake, such as playing cards or reading.
  • Do not criticize your children for changes in behavior, such as clinging to parents, acting out the earthquake in play, or seeking reassurance frequently.
  • Be extra patient as your children return to school. They may be more distracted and need extra help with homework for a while.
  • Give support at bedtime. Children may be more anxious when separating from parents. Spend a little more time than usual talking, cuddling, or reading. Start the bedtime routine earlier so children get the sleep they need. If younger children need to sleep with you, let them know it is a temporary plan, and that soon they will go back to sleeping in their own beds.
  • Help with boredom. The earthquake may have disrupted the family's daily activities (watching television, playing on the computer, and having friends over) or caused the suspension of extracurricular activities (sports, youth groups, dances, or classes). Help children think of alternative activities, such as board games, card games, and arts and crafts. Try to find community programs (at the library, a park program, or a local YMCA) with child-friendly activities.
  • Keep things hopeful. Even in the most difficult situation, your positive outlook on the future will help your children see good things in the world around them, helping them through challenging times.
  • Seek professional help if your child still has difficulties more than six weeks after the earthquake.


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Therapy for Children

If children are still having the reactions described above more than six weeks after the earthquake, consult a mental health professional for an evaluation. If the clinician recommends counseling, keep in mind that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has the strongest evidence for helping children recover from a disaster. Therapy for children should typically include:

  • Family involvement
  • Awareness of the child's developmental level and cultural/religious differences
  • Assessment of preexisting mental health problems, including prior traumas and loss
  • Explanation and normalization of the child's psychological reactions to the earthquake
  • Relaxation exercises and other skills to manage reactions to reminders of the earthquake
  • Problem-solving and anger-management skills as needed
  • Helping to maintain normal developmental progression
  • Increasing positive activities and rebuilding social connections


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What Parents Can Do to Help Themselves

Parents have a tendency to neglect their own needs during a crisis. To take good care of their children, parents must take good care of themselves. Here are some things for parents to keep in mind:

  • Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and get proper medical care.
  • Support each other. Parents and caregivers should take time to talk together and find ways to meet each other's needs.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any life-altering decisions during this stressful postearthquake period.
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo cleanup activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.


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What Teachers Can Do to Help Their Students

  • In a school with many students affected by an earthquake, plan shorter lessons, go at a slower pace, give less homework than usual, and expect a decline in performance for a short time.
  • Identify students who had direct experience with the earthquake, particularly those who suffered losses or had to evacuate, as they are at increased risk for distress.
  • Monitor conversations you and your colleagues have about the earthquake, as you may share perceptions, feelings, and memories in ways that make children feel more anxious.
  • Encourage distressed students to meet with the school counselors.
  • Stay in touch with your students' parents and/or caregivers about academic performance and behavior.
  • Suggest that your school review its crisis and emergency plans in order to better respond to future events.
  • For those schools heavily affected by an earthquake, consider a postdisaster mental health recovery program for students and school personnel. The NCTSN provides information on these programs and other material for educators in the Resources for School Personnel section of this website.


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What Teachers Can Do to Help Themselves

Teachers play an important role in helping their students recover. Simply returning to school promotes the welfare of children and families. Teachers should not neglect themselves as they work with children, adolescents, and families. Here are some self-care suggestions for teachers:

  • Take care of yourself emotionally. You and your family may have had a stressful experience and suffered losses like those of your students. To be able to support them, you must have support yourself.
  • Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and get proper medical care.
  • Communicate with others. Make sure that you and your fellow teachers schedule ongoing times to talk together and give each other support. Teachers might consider covering for each other, so that they can address important personal/family issues that arise.
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo cleanup activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any life-altering decisions during this stressful, postearthquake period.
  • Take care of your own family. Even though you may be very committed to your students, you also need to spend time with and meet the needs of your own family members or friends.
  • If you have many earthquake-related responsibilities, talk with your school administrators about temporarily altering your work schedule.


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